The media—both mainstream and social—have been enraptured in the past three weeks with Chinese spy balloons and various unidentified flying objects traversing U.S. air space. Our government has responded to these incursions in baffling ways, leading to harsh criticism from some corners, calls for explanations and better transparency from others, and just about all of us asking “what the heck is going on?”
At first glance, it appears the Biden administration exercised due caution in assessing, debating and ultimately shooting down the biggest known threat, the well-equipped Chinese balloon, once it was safely over the Atlantic. But then—then!—the government revealed an itchy trigger finger, downing four more suspicious aircraft as if to say, “No one shall accuse this administration of hemming and hawing when national security is concerned!” The military even tweaked its radar to capture the smaller signatures of objects everyone knows are up there but we just hadn’t bothered to track.
This despite the fact those four UFOs remain just that—unidentified. For “commercial purposes,” they’ve been speculatively termed. “Innocent, unpropelled scientific gear” has also come up by way of explanation. One craft was smaller than an SUV. And now all are at the bottom of some body of water or other (one of them in icy waters off the Aleutian Islands), awaiting possible —but surely difficult and expensive—retrieval by the military or intelligence community.
Watching all this through the lens of my 34 years of experience in public relations, I’m a little befuddled—not by the nature of these incidents, but by the government’s public response to them. While I also scratch my head wondering where all these UFOs are coming from, I’m more interested in what communications professionals can learn from this unusual stretch of U.S. history and the administration’s mealy-mouthed statements. Here are five takeaways:
You won’t please everyone all the time. Live with it.
Republicans in Congress are excoriating the Biden administration with acting too slowly when America’s heartland could look up and see the giant white balloon floating overhead. Why was it allowed to overfly sensitive military installations, they wanted to know. But waiting until the balloon was safely over territorial waters off the Carolinas before shooting it down seemed prudent, given the hardware about the size of three school buses hanging under the balloon, and was consistent with the military’s advice. It’s a safe bet that had we shot it down over Montana, some members of Congress would’ve accused the administration of having a hair trigger or jeopardizing lives and structures on the ground. Some might argue we’re provoking China; others might say we need to study the surveillance payload to determine what intelligence they gathered…and what their capabilities are.
Invariably, organizations have to make tough choices that will annoy some constituencies while being celebrated by others. Consumers might briefly rebel while Wall Street applauds. Sometimes we just find ourselves in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” circumstances. The important thing is to consider all points of view, make your best move consistent with your organization’s mission, goals and your own internal compass, then own that course of action and stick to it.
Gather all relevant information before going out with your communications.
This is almost a no-brainer, yet the government failed spectacularly here. Firing on multiple UFOs within days can only rattle the American public UNLESS you can articulate good reasons for doing so, or what you’re shooting at. Transparency is great, but if you don’t know what you’re dealing with it’s okay to postpone making public statements, or to say “we are investigating this and will let you know what we determine as soon as we can.” And preferably before missiles fly.
Don’t act impulsively because of prevailing winds.
Winds blow things overhead, like balloons. But don’t be a slave to the winds of public sentiment. Simply shooting things because you were burned from a PR standpoint the prior week does not make you look competent. It makes you look like you’re overreacting. Every case is different, every object is not spying on us. Balloons and other flying devices are used for various and sundry reasons, from weather forecasting/science to monitoring agriculture, to aerial photography to, yes, commercial purposes such as testing broadband or Wi-Fi platforms. Figure out what you’re dealing with, then act appropriately rather than enacting a blanket policy.
Once you know your target, hit it with precision.
It was revealed that one of the UFOs targeted over Lake Huron last week took TWO missiles to shoot down. And these things aren’t cheap, upwards of $400,000 for a heat-seeking Sidewinder. Granted, the object may have been small and maybe not emitting heat, but we have the most technologically advanced weaponry in the world. Taking two shots to down even a small object is not acceptable, and makes the military look incompetent. Once you choose your media target, take care to research it thoroughly, find the writer there most apt to be receptive to your pitch, and launch with precision. A rejection might not cost nearly half a mil, but too many misses won’t make you look good. Don’t be scattershot.
Have a unified message and choose one person to deliver it.
The government’s statements, equivocations and obfuscations since the first balloon was shot down have been epic, with every “answer” leading to more questions. On the one hand, officials have said these latest devices weren’t a threat. But on the other, they admitted not knowing what they were. And if there were no threat, why did we shoot them down? Are they carrying moisture sensors or bio-weapons? This brand of rampant speculation even prompted White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to categorically state, likely for the first time in the history of the James Brady Press Briefing Room, “there is no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, meanwhile, said that these objects were taken out because they were flying at about 40,000 feet (lower than the Chinese balloon) and as a result posed a potential danger to commercial aircraft. It’s worth noting that aircraft-balloon collisions are infinitesimally rare.
President Biden, for his part, simply said the operation was “a success” without any further clarification.
This is the true danger of not being cohesive in your message: you give people room to speculate, and that can spawn conspiracy theories, doubt, and mistrust of elected officials…or your organization or brand.